Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 713:
TWO-PHASE FLOW MEETING

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 713.

Today, we look under the surface of a technical meeting. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I'm in Berkeley, California, with fifty Japanese and American engineering scientists. These are the reigning experts on liquid-vapor flows. We've met to talk about boiling, condensation, water hammer, explosive vaporization -- things like that.

Behind it all is a shared interest in modern power equipment. How well these people wrestle with energy will decide your electric bill. They're the ones who avoid nuclear meltdowns. They'll eventually implement fusion power.

So graphs and schematic diagrams march across the screen. And no one exposes the least flicker of feeling for underlying drama. But drama is here.

Consider the matter of size. If we yoked every person on earth to treadmills, they'd sweat to match the output of one big power plant. We have to invent ways to move the power of thousands of toasters through areas the size of your desktop.

We have to manipulate power on a scale so far beyond human capacity we should be terrified. Twelve years ago a student and I modeled the accidental break of a hot-water pipe in a nuclear reactor. Our flow area was only a thousandth of full size.

The result was a mini-explosion that shook the foundations of our building. Suddenly we knew in our stomachs -- not just our minds -- what we were dealing with. Still, these people know that fear doesn't harness dragons.

So we grind through five long days of nose-to-nose conversation. The Japanese and Americans struggle to understand each other's rules of politeness, as they struggle to understand each other's equations and experiments.

A Japanese engineer has worked with medical people. He uses magnetic resonance imaging -- MRI -- to measure steam-water flows. We know MRI works in the human skull. Now he's made it work in a pipe. An American is trying to predict steam-water flows with avant-garde ideas about chaos and fractals.

Evening comes. I call my home to talk about the family and the household. I forget to mention what I found out today about a new hope for cold fusion. I, too, overlook the drama here.

So what is happening in all this dry talk? These people are changing the quality and character of everyday life. But they speak only of numerical analysis -- of experimental accuracy. They break the big picture into very small pieces.

They hide their drama in a thicket of problems. One day we'll live in a cleaner, safer world. And then? Well, I know these people. When, like you and me, they enjoy that world -- they'll quite overlook the part they played in building it.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Proceedings of the Seminar on Two-Phase Flow Dynamics (V. Schrock and T, Sakaguchi, eds.). Berkeley, CA: Nuclear Engineering Department, July 5-11, 1992

The meeting was the fourth such US-Japan seminar since 1978. It was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. The cold fusion conversation actually took place during a side visit I made at the Electric Power Research Institute nearby.



Photo by John Lienhard

An intense flow boiling process


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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